Stop Blaming the Driver: Why Car Sickness Is All in Your Head

Neuroscientist Dean Burnett explains that motion sickness may actually be caused by your brain thinking it has been poisoned.

[DIGEST: NPR, Science Alert, New York Magazine]

If you get motion sickness, you’re not alone. About 33 percent of the population is susceptible to motion sickness. While you may assume that the queasiness comes from being bumped and jostled about, the actual reason may be a bit stranger.

According to Cardiff University neuroscientist Dean Burnett, author of the book Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To, motion sickness is actually the brain’s response to thinking it has been poisoned.

Burnett explained that a part of the brain called the thalamus is responsible for interpreting sensory signals and feeding those signals to other parts of the brain. The thalamus interprets the motion of the muscular system, the balance sensors in the ears, the input from the eyes and so forth. All these sensory cues are compiled by the thalamus which gives us an impression of what’s happening in the world around us.

Car Sickness
Credit: Source.

Until very recently, evolutionarily speaking, if we were moving, our muscular system was moving as well. However, when in a car or other vehicle, we are sitting still. This leaves the brain with mixed signals—the fluids in your ears tell you that you are moving, but other cues are telling you that you are not.

“There’s a sensory mismatch there,” said Burnett. “And in evolutionary terms, the only thing that can cause a sensory mismatch like that is a neurotoxin or poison. So the brain thinks,

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